Why Power Matters in Service-Learning

From the Archives (2010):

Written by Andrea Yoder Clark, Yoder Clark & Co. Consulting

What is power and what does it have to do with service-learning? In a recent study, seven service-learning pioneers and seven service-learning emerging leaders were asked to respond to this two-pronged question (Yoder Clark, 2009). In this study, power was defined using the theoretical tradition of critical theory. Critical theorists examine relationships of power in society and document how power is shared and transferred between social groups (Darder, Baltadano & Torres, 2003).

Critical Theory, Power, and Service-Learning

According to Antonio Gramsci, a critical theorist, power is concentrated in institutions controlled by society’s dominant groups. In his view, marginalized social groups are often exploited to maintain the power of ruling classes through social systems like schools (Gramsci, 1971). In this model, schools unintentionally reproduce social inequities by using academic tracking or by assigning district boundaries that group the students with the lowest socioeconomic status together in one school.

Many service-learning proponents contend that service-learning can overcome these social boundaries by providing opportunities for interaction among students from different social groups to work together toward a common goal (Billig, 2000). However, others caution against such broad generalizations of service-learning outcomes (Levine, 2008), noting that service-learning programs that do not follow quality standards fall short of such claims. If they are not well-designed, service-learning programs may perpetuate a “missionary ideological” approach, where one group tries to impose its ideas on another group without examining the group’s traditions, beliefs, and needs. Negligible positive outcomes or even negative consequences for students can be the result (Fine, 2003; Gasong, 2003; Weah, Simmons & Hall, 2003).

Service-Learning from a Missionary Ideology and the Role of Power

Service-learning enacted from a missionary ideology is often carried out by members of a socially dominant culture imposing acts of service for, to, or on a traditionally marginalized group (Weah, Simmons, & Hall, 2003). When service-learning like this occurs, the service project rarely engages the group receiving service. The receiving group may perceive the service act as “a hand out,” or “charity.” These interactions can reinforce a myth of powerlessness within the community served while making it harder for historically oppressed groups to gain the necessary skills to solve social problems (Freire, 1970). This process results in what Gramsci would call the reproduction of social inequity. When there is no transfer of expertise or authority between groups, the powerful stay powerful, and the powerless stay powerless.

While there are more equitable service-learning projects (Weah, Simmons, & Hall, 2003; Gasong, 2003) and new resources, such as the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice (NYLC, 2008), many people doing service-learning find it difficult to fully incorporate community perspectives and goals. Unfortunately, few specific recommendations for managing power dynamics in the service-learning process exist. This study aims to develop recommendations that promote service-learning as a tool for social equity and justice and avoid missionary ideology.

Why Power Matters to Service-Learning Practitioners

The critical theorist Michel Foucault (1977) viewed power as a multi-directional interaction flowing through relationships, rather than a linear interaction from the powerful to the powerless. This study uses Foucault’s concept of power to help combat social inequity, rather than reinforce it, in service-learning projects. Power is particularly important to consider given the many people involved in a service-learning project. Power dynamics occur constantly and simultaneously throughout the service-learning experience—from facilitator to students, from students to those served, from one social community to another, and from one socioeconomic class to another (Yoder Clark, 2009).

Pioneers and Emerging Leaders Identify Locations of Power in Service-Learning

To better understand how to use Foucault’s notion of power in service-learning, we must first identify where to find the dynamics of power within a service-learning experience. Power dynamics, balanced or imbalanced, are created through a person’s actions. Being patronizing, condescending, and ignoring the contributions and value others bring to the service experience can lead to a lack of trust among service-learning participants and negatively impact the service-learning project as a whole. Ignoring such behaviors can undermine collaboration and the potential positive impacts of service-learning.

In this study, we interviewed two groups of leaders in the service-learning field, pioneers and emerging leaders, to determine where in a typical service-learning experience imbalances in power are likely to occur. We also set out to identify best practices to address imbalances of power. We chose the two groups of service-learning leaders because of their emphasis on social justice and equity.

We selected ten names of service-learning pioneers from the seminal text Service-Learning: A Movement’s Pioneers Reflect on its Origins, Practice and Future (Stanton, Giles, & Cruz, 1999). An email was sent asking them to participate in the study. Seven pioneers responded to the email recruitment letter.

The emerging leaders were recruited from among participants in the Service-Learning Emerging Leaders project funded by the Kellogg Foundation, an effort to increase diversity within the service-learning field by providing professional development and support to a national cohort of diverse service-learning practitioners under 30. For this study, the emerging leaders selected needed knowledge of program and curriculum development to comment on best practices for addressing issues of power in the service-learning process. The seven emerging leaders who were engaged in creating service-learning programs or curriculum within their organizations were chosen to participate. All contacted agreed to participate and were eventually interviewed.

While both pioneers and emerging leaders are recognized as national leaders in the field of service-learning, there are important differences between them. In the pioneer group, there were two women and two who represented marginalized groups (one African American male and one Filipina). Of the seven emerging leaders, four were female, three were Hispanic, three were African American, and one was White. There were also differences between the two groups in how long they had been within their field and the focus of their service-learning work. Most pioneers worked with undergraduate students in university settings. Conducting service work for a community was a requirement. The emerging leaders, in contrast, were mostly employed within nonprofit organizations that work directly with diverse communities. Only one emerging leader was a charter school teacher and administrator. Finally, the pioneers had much more experience in the service-learning field. All of the seven pioneers began their careers in service-learning as the field developed in the 1960s and 1970s and continue to influence the field today. The emerging leaders had an average of eight years of field experience.

Consistent with guidelines for narrative inquiry (Chase, 2005), open-ended questions, developed in advance, were asked. During the interview, questions were used to direct conversations, but not as a strict script. We conducted follow-up interviews when necessary. During the process, personal stories were encouraged and recorded. Interview questions with emerging leaders addressed the concept of power in service-learning for, as well as best practices contributing to successful attention to power. We also explored the degree to which critical theory influenced the leaders service-learning practice and program development. We compared the two sets of interviews to identify emergent themes. Study findings were reviewed by interviewees and they provided consent to share their stories.
Results identifying locations of power in service-learning practice by each group of leaders are outlined in Figure 1.

To validate the interview findings, we reviewed articles in the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning from 1994–2007. Nine articles cited critical theory and used critical theory to inform power dynamics in service-learning practice. Table 1 outlines the power imbalances identified within the literature. Emergent themes from the literature were compared to emergent themes addressing power from the interviews (Table 1). We found that critical theoretical themes used to address power in the literature parallel the insights of the service-learning leaders (Figure 1), further validating the results. The research cited in Table 1 support the need for increased attention to power dynamics within service-learning (Deans, 1999; Liu, 2000; Taylor, 2002).

Six Strategies for Addressing Power in Service-Learning Practice

We asked service-learning leaders to consider how they have addressed imbalances of power in their practice. Leaders identified strategies that were grouped into six different principles for addressing power within service-learning (see Figure 2).

We constructed six principles of power to align with critical theory strategies identified in both interviews and in the literature. The following six principles are specific recommendations for strategies by the service-learning leaders and the literature on how to address power within service-learning practice.

1. Develop Personal Power

With this principle, people closely examine their actions throughout the service-learning experience and reflect on it to get more out of the process. While all service-learning project participants interact through relationships involving power, to truly “empower” participants, conscious attention must be focused on developing their personal skills and abilities throughout the project. Identity formation exercises can help foster individual development. Participants have a chance to take time to explore the values and assets they bring to the service-learning experience. Participants can then consider their own sociocultural heritage and see how this might have affected their interactions with others in the service experience (Dunlap, et al., 2007; Green, 2001; Kiely, 2005; Madsen-Camacho, 2004; Pompa, 2002; Varlotta, 1996; Madsen-Camacho, 2004). Participants can reflect on similarities and differences with others in the service experience. By doing so, participants see firsthand how their abilities and skills add to and complement those of the other stakeholders (Varlotta, 1996; Green, 2001). Finally, all participants determine what skills they need to build to sustain long lasting benefits from the service experience
(Varlotta, 1996).

2. Create Space for Partnership with All Stakeholders

With this principle, once the assets and needs of service providers and community members are identified, all involved stakeholders should be notified. The focus should be on helping participants gain needed skills while building on the community’s skills and expertise. Finally, give indigenous leadership meaningful roles throughout the service process.

3. Learn in Context

With this principle, creating learning goals that include participants’ social and cultural experiences can influence power dynamics in several ways. First, as practitioners relate the sociocultural experiences of those participating in the service project to the content of what is learned, students can analyze the potential risks for inequity associated with their project. For example, if the service project is about cleaning up a community, youth can see how science relates to the community’s values and norms. They can then relate that back to how science has been used in similar communities and its role in achieving goals. To bolster the importance of science, examples of scientists from each social group involved in the service project should be provided. Examples should include information on how this community can use this knowledge to find their own power.

4. Build Community over the Long Term

With this principle, the organization instigating the service project should focus on building long-term equitable relationships to address potential imbalances in power. Service-learning leaders identified several steps to create these relationships including: fostering trust, valuing collaboration and cooperation, communicating openly with all stakeholders, advocating for community members, making long-term commitments to communities and respecting diversity in all its forms. This principle can help ensure that sustainable service projects are developed that outlast the involvement of the organization instigating service.

5. Explicitly Name Power Relationships

With this principle, the process of respectfully acknowledging and confronting differences in power within the service experience can build trust among different groups in society. Working together toward more equitable power dynamics is an essential step in building truly reciprocal and collaborative relationships.

6. Produce Meaningful Action toward Transformational Change

With this principle, transformational, long-term change can be accomplished in communities when participants are given roles that have value, meaning and importance within the service project. Providing entors ensures that progress won’t end if the community members who began the project leave. Establishing collaborations and partnerships with additional community organizations achieves long-term community wide support for the project and access to additional expertise. To ensure that the project is on track, project goals should be regularly monitored and assessed.

The six principles of power represent an ongoing study into power dynamics in service-learning. The preliminary interview data gathered here will be used in future studies as the principles continue to be field tested and refined.

Is Power Relevant to Service-Learning?

Service-learning standards represent the fields’ current measure of quality. The addition of the six principles of power provided here may help expand and deepen the existing standards to better address the needs of all participants in the service-learning process. The topic of power is especially relevant to historically marginalized social groups who struggle daily for access to power. Through identifying and naming these struggles for power as they play out within the service-learning experience, we may be getting closer to achieving equality in service-learning.


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